Preaching to People not at People


There is a subtle distinction between preaching to people and preaching at people. The latter is a common approach to preaching that focuses primarily on the preacher and the text. That is to say that the critical work of preaching is focused primarily on the goals of understanding of the text and the preacher's explanation of it. Both of these are necessary and important parts of preaching but the result is something like giving a book report. You have a task and you accomplish it as best you can. I can't remember a single book report that I gave or heard that meant anything to the people listening. I imagine even the teacher was bored with the assignment after a while.

Alternatively, we should be focused on preaching to people. Preaching must take into consideration the listener. The audience is an active member of the preaching event. To ignore the listener is to miss out on an important relationship. Here are some ways to focus on preaching to people:

Remember, Your Listeners are Diverse and Complex People

You are a unique person. You have your own interests, your own experiences, the relationships in your life, and many other things that make you who you are. Because of this, your take on the world reflects who you are. This is not a bad thing but it does mean that you are likely to have blind spots. Topics that you lean toward, stories that connect with your experiences, and ideas that excite your imagination. All of these things are great but can easily fail to connect with people who are different to you. When I prepare a sermon, I try to pick a few people who I know will be there and ask myself "Would they appreciate what I am trying to say?" "Does this connect with their life experience?" "Can I do more to connect with them?" You will not be able to address every listener's unique view at once but you will be surprised how your approach to preaching expands to include diversity.

Spend Time with People

The thought experiment noted above becomes a lot easier when you actually have good reference points. You may have all sorts of opportunity to connect with people as part of your ministry and that should be applauded. In these circumstances, and beyond these ministry encounters, you should take time get to know people from many backgrounds. Understanding people in your community is a fantastic way of being able to remember them when you go to write a sermon. 

Try Preaching to Someone You Trust

Whether this happens one on one or whether you get someone from your congregation to give you feedback, you should try to create opportunities to hear how people respond to your sermon. Yes, we often get casual remarks or we hear about certain sermons that people loved but if we want to improve our ability to preach we need to go further. We need to seek out meaningful feedback from a diverse group of people so that we know if our words are being heard.